Red State (2011)

Directed By: Kevin Smith
Written By: Kevin Smith
Starring: Michael Parks
  John Goodman
  Melissa Leo
  Kyle Gallner
Red State

Opening with a picket at the funeral of a recently-murdered young gay man, one could be forgiven for assuming Kevin Smith’s Red State is a slight on the much-maligned Westboro Baptist Church. However, about halfway through this disturbingly realistic take on cult mentality in the Deep South, John Goodman’s law enforcement officer informs a colleague, and by extension the audience, that this lot are far worse than the WBC – because they’ve got guns, y’all.

Kevin Smith is not a name usually associated with horror, but his first genre effort is refreshingly honest and inventive, succeeding thanks to a killer cast of old reliables – including Michael Parks in a standout performance – and some talented newcomers who are well able to be gagged and shrink-wrapped to crucifixes, among other things.

The premise concerns a hardcore religious group, known as the Five Points Trinity Church, operating from the backwoods town of Cooper’s Dell, where three unlucky teenagers venture after meeting a woman online who offers them sex. When they arrive, Melissa Leo’s uncomfortable, strait-laced preacher’s daughter greets them. They are subsequently drugged and caged, before being forced to witness the murder of a fellow “gay” in front of a congregation of believers, all of whom think homosexuals are responsible for the inevitable extinction of the human race.

Red State is a remarkably tense, clever little film with which Smith manages to showcase his innate understanding of the language of real people, alongside an uncanny knack for spotting what is deeply creepy and unsettling about too-strongly-held religious beliefs. A staunch supporter of Michael Parks, Smith often argues the man should be in everything – he’s the bad guy again in his upcoming Tusk – and he does some of his best work here as the charming, manipulative, but ultimately evil Pastor Cooper.

Everything about Cooper, from his mannerisms, to his southern lilt, to his imposing demeanour is on point and, although slightly older, he is a menacing presence, whether tinkling a piano or brandishing a machine gun. The centrepiece of the film is a sermon, which captures his charm, energy and ruthlessness in one extended, nail-biting sequence culminating in the cold-blooded murder of some poor soul, and the ease at which the family accepts this man’s fate represents what is truly terrifying about the subject matter.

Far more blood is shed later, during a well-executed shootout between the family, and Goodman’s rough, tough cop. However, although it delivers some impressive carnage and gore, it doesn’t stick in the brain as much as that first kill. A twist ending is hilariously obtuse, but strangely satisfying – rumour has it Smith envisioned it going entirely in another direction, but it fits the story better as is.

This isn’t the director’s first foray into religious doctrine and over-zealous preacher types. Dogma, one of his most famous flicks, dealt with similar themes. Smith’s low budget, indie credentials work to his credit here, as he perfectly captures the sun-scorched Southern landscape and its’ often lost inhabitants. The three protagonists are doomed, but not necessarily for the sins the Church thinks they’ve committed. Likewise, Goodman’s cop is a frustrated, tortured man, struggling with his own demons.

The tagline may be “Fear God” but the message seems to be that we should fear each other, because people commit the real crimes, not any higher power. After all, the boys are dumb enough to trust someone they meet online, to their detriment, while the local sheriff perishes because Cooper knows he’s secretly gay and threatens to out him to his wife.

The only disappointing aspect of an otherwise starkly brave, very honest film is when Smith, who also penned the snappy script, feels the need to explicitly state that the Five Points Trinity Church are not the Westboro Baptist Church, in a lame move that betrays his outspoken, opinionated public persona and taints the otherwise flawless narrative. This is Parks’ film, though. He delivers a revelatory performance as the twisted Cooper, the simple line “I fear God” uttered with such conviction one wonders if he’s going to impale himself on the crucifix before anyone else gets a chance.

Red State lives or dies on this central performance, and Smith chose wisely with Parks. However, Goodman comes into his own also, delivering an impressive final monologue that does his character and the story justice. The grainy, shaky cam style which Smith has adopted here suits the premise well, imbuing the events with a real-world, news-brief quality that makes them even more stomach-churning.

Of course, Smith can’t resist forever, as he cameos off-screen as the prisoner in the next cell to Cooper, who matter-of-factly tells him to “shut the fuck up” mid-song. It’s a typical end to a not-so-typical Kevin Smith film that proves there’s a lot more to the director than dick and fart jokes.

Rating: ★★★★★★★★★☆

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